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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

That Frightening Speech

A speech is a fear-monger. It delights in making both presenters and communicators quake. It causes them to hide behind safe boilerplate text and embellished PowerPoints.

As a speechwriter, I know this monster. So let me yank him out from underneath the bed and show him for what he truly is: a motivator.

Why do we fear speeches (and I don’t think fear is too strong a word)?

Executives fear possible embarrassment from

  • faux pas,
  • attending reporters, and
  • audience misinterpretation.

Writers fear

  • that what they prepare will not be what the executive wants to say,
  • that what the executive wants to say may not be what the audience wants to hear, and
  • that the executive may mangle their finely crafted prose.

Here is what The Speech monster really looks like.

The Speech wants to communicate primarily to the ear, unlike a printed piece created mostly for the eye. Words that look good on paper may not sit well in the ear. Print writing requires clarity, of course, but should the reader get distracted or not understand, she can always glance back at the previous text to recapture some overlooked words or a missed point.

The listening audience doesn’t have that luxury. You wouldn’t want to raise your hand and ask the Fortune 500 CEO at the Economic Club luncheon to repeat what he just said because you weren’t listening or that he wasn’t clear.

Speakers and speechwriters: If you lack a knack for catching an audience’s ear, speakers can hire a speaking coach; writers may want to stick to print.

To help the reader map messages, print writers rely on visual structure -- paragraphs, bullet points, etc. -- and linear logic: an introductory concept followed by supporting points that build an argument, hopefully, to an indisputable conclusion.

By contrast, The Speech draws mind-maps that leads listeners out from a central message to a sub-point, then back to the center, out to another sub-point, and back again. (Anett Grant is the guru of this technique.)

Speaker and speechwriters: Think patterns, not strings.

There is a cadence to this pattern movement. When reinforced by alliteration, repetitious words and phrases (the bane of print writers), and stories, a rhythm results. That rhythm invigorates the speaker and the audience. The speaker starts moving his hands; the audience stops reading emails on their phones.

The fact that speechwriting can be more poetry than prose makes the writer’s job much more difficult and scary. (Poetry is for personal journals, right?) Moreover, it is poetry created for retention. Winning an audience’s attention quickly, then holding them for a long stretch is not easy; getting that audience to remember and later share what was said with colleagues is formidable.

Speakers and speechwriters: Think rhythm first, then words.

What you should remember as a speaker is that the audience:

  • will remember you, not your PowerPoints.
  • will remember, maybe, two points.
  • will remember the stories you told.

Speaking of retention, do you remember my saying earlier that the fearful speech monster is really a motivator? As an executive, when was the last time a situation was foreboding? Yesterday? And as a communicator, when was the last time you said “impossible” to an intimidating assignment and then did it. A speech pales by comparison. Fear – the fear of speeches -- sparks imagination.

Besides, if you fear that this tumultuous economy may jeopardize your job, an impressive speech will sure look good on your resume. Now, that’s motivation.


Anonymous said...

You captured the essential dichotomy of the printed word versus the spoken word. And I could easily see that difference and relate to it. Although you pointed out my common fears of public speaking you also showed me the opportunity to reach an audience in a strong way. But I think that was what you were trying to accomplish. Maybe I had it all wrong as to what I could do for you when it comes to grooming you as a public speaker; I should be the speaker and let you coach me instead of vice-versa. Here's the question for the new generation: How do we reach the social networks with speeches? Doesn't the video diminish from the impact of a speech and the energy of the speaker?